The Unsung Art of the Field Guide

Field Guide

Often times we immediately look to the images and illustrations of birds in a field guide. We depend on our eyes to deconstruct the intricacies that set each bird apart. However, our eyes can often deceive us. Much like when viewing an impressionist painting our mind will make sense of the image before us; we’ll see a beautiful sunrise along the coast, rather than the colors and brushstrokes that make up that image. Our mind will do the same with each bird we examine.

It is important for birders to look beyond the images of a field guide and explore the field notes assigned to each bird. This may seem like a tedious act of study, but the descriptive notes will correct the errors of our eyes by characterizing behavior and drawing our attention to specific details.

Take for example the female Black-Throated Blue Warbler.

Female Black-Throated Blue Warbler
Photo by Tripti Suwal

At first glance, this bird is neither black-throated nor blue. It is easy to confuse this warbler with that of other fall warblers with dull colors and plain wings.

A quick look into the notes though will guide your attention to this bird’s subtle features, such as the dark cheek and the white wing spot. Reading these descriptions will improve your ability to identify birds quickly and with confidence.

Scientific Poetry

A good field guide will read like scientific poetry. The descriptions within may include a range of expressive wording. You may be surprised to find adjectives such as stately, translucent, decurved, blotched, dusky, conspicuous, shy, jewel-like, iridescent, pugnacious, vigorous, plaintive, mustached, chalky-blue, etc.

Think. What birds come to mind when you hear these words?

I remember discovering the Common Nighthawk early one summer. I heard it’s cries high above the city as the bird flew with distinct strokes and pristine glides scooping insects out of the air. Upon the discovery I looked up the Common Nighthawk in my Peterson Field Guide. I remember reading the description, “Nighthawks are an aberrant goatsucker, often abroad by day.” I laughed at the line, enjoying every word. Now I see Nighthawks as distinguished nightjars, rebels in the sunset summer skies.

My understanding of these birds was enriched in part to these notes. Had I only looked to the illustrations, all I’d know is the obvious features of this curious bird, the pointed wings and the broad wing bars.

For me, the notes in a field guide enliven the characteristics and behaviors of birds. It is well-known that Audubon, Sibley, and Peterson have illuminated the area of ornithology with their avian illustrations, but to overlook their notes would be a disservice. The descriptions within a field guide reveal even more, working to broaden our understanding of each bird species as it interacts with the natural world.

The next time you find an inspiring description within your field guide: note it, pay attention to the details, and enjoy the discovery–much the way you would when seeing a new bird perched on a branch.